By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 6, 2009
BUCHENWALD, Germany, June 5 -- President Obama spent an hour on Friday in silence broken only by a faint breeze, the crunch of shoes on gravel and whispered stories.
At his side as he walked through a small copse of trees marking the most horrific part of a horrific place were German Chancellor Angela Merkel and author Elie Wiesel, who was imprisoned at Buchenwald as a teenager and who watched his father die within its barbed-wire confines.
When Obama emerged beneath the watchtower at the entrance to the Nazi concentration camp, he spoke about the duty to remember what happened here, implicitly rebuking those -- such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- who deny it.
Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Obama said, had ordered photographs and films made of every Nazi concentration camp that his troops discovered so that denying the Holocaust would be impossible.
"We are here today because we know this work is not yet finished," Obama said. "To this day, there are those who insist that the Holocaust never happened -- a denial of fact and truth that is baseless and ignorant and hateful."
"This place is the ultimate rebuke to such thoughts," he continued, "a reminder of our duty to confront those who would tell lies about our history."
Obama's visit to Germany followed a speech a day earlier in Cairo that contained some sharp words for Israel, which he urged to stop building settlements in the territories it has occupied since 1967 and to accept a future Palestinian state. His solemn remarks at Buchenwald appeared aimed at balancing that message, reaffirming his support of Israel and using memories of war to build momentum for peace.
On Saturday, he is scheduled to travel to Normandy to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Allied landing, "the beginning of the end of World War II," as he noted Friday. He intends to use the occasion to pay tribute to veterans of the war, whom he said are reaching "the sunset of their years."
After a meeting Friday morning, Merkel and Obama toured Dresden's Church of Our Lady, a graceful baroque building in the center of the city. The original church was built in the 11th century and collapsed in February 1945 after fierce Allied bombing. For decades, the ruins stood as a reminder of the war. But it was rebuilt in the 1990s following Germany's reunification and became a symbol of the city's revival.
From Dresden, the leaders traveled by helicopter to Buchenwald.
The camp's Main Site, which once held as many as 20,000 prisoners at a time, is bare of trees and slopes down toward a broad, green plane. Just outside a fence of 15-foot-high barbed wire a small forest begins, providing a break from the cool wind under low, slate-gray clouds.
The group walked into the site carrying long-stemmed white roses. They passed beneath the watchtower, where the clock is frozen at 3:15, marking the moment the U.S. Third Army liberated the camp. Obama stooped above a memorial to the dead, placing a flower on top, then rose again in silence. He was followed by Merkel, Wiesel and Bertrand Herz, the president of an association of Buchenwald survivors.
The group made its way downhill, past foundations where prisoner bunkhouses once stood. One historical sign read: Block 8, Living Quarters. (Young People) 1943-1945.
They then entered a small clearing within a grove of trees that has grown over the most fearful part of Buchenwald. They stood quietly, speaking in hushed voices, at a stone memorial marking what was known as the Little Camp, a particularly brutal annex where Wiesel was held -- and where his father died.
"He became sick, weak, and I was there. I was there when he suffered. I was there when he asked for help, for water. I was there to receive his last words," Wiesel said in remarks following the tour. "But I was not there when he called for me, although we were in the same block; he on the upper bed and I on the lower bed. He called my name, and I was too afraid to move. All of us were. And then he died. I was there, but I was not there."
American soldiers arrived at Buchenwald in April 1945, three months after Wiesel's father perished of hunger and disease. The Little Camp was by then known as the Jewish Camp, holding 2,000 mostly French, Russian, Polish and Dutch Jews without sanitation, corpses allowed by the Nazis to decay unburied.
Obama's great-uncle, Charlie Payne, saw the camp as a young soldier.
"He returned from his service in a state of shock, saying little and isolating himself for months on end from family and friends, alone with the painful memories that would not leave his head," Obama said. "And as we see -- as we saw some of the images here, it's understandable that someone who witnessed what had taken place here would be in a state of shock."
In a corner of the Main Site sits a building that looks like a house, with cream-colored walls, a peaked roof and a red-brick chimney: the crematorium. A memorial there is kept warmed to the exact temperature of a living human body.
But, Merkel said, "this was not a place for living. It was a place for dying."
Speaking after Obama, Wiesel took the opportunity to call for peace in the Middle East, as his friend the president had done a day earlier.
"The time must come," he said. "It's enough -- enough to go to cemeteries, enough to weep for oceans. It's enough. There must come a moment -- a moment of bringing people together."